En la Armada de Chile, la cultura del Can-do, es valorada e inculcada con fuerza desde la Escuela Naval, como una virtud de nuestro estilo de liderazgo. Sin embargo, existen peligros asociados, como el orgullo mal entendido, el temor a la reacción de un superior y quizás el más importante, la falta de humildad profesional. El balance que debe existir entre el can-do y decir que No, por lo tanto, presenta un verdadero dilema de liderazgo, cuya respuesta no es sencilla. Es una obligación de quien ocupa una posición de liderazgo, poder distinguir los riesgos asociados a una tarea y contrastarlos con los beneficios o metas esperadas.
In the Chilean Navy, the Can-do culture is valued as a virtue of our leadership and is strongly ingrained from the first day we enter the Naval Academy. However, some risks are involved, such as a misunderstood personal pride, apprehension of our superior´s reaction and, perhaps the most important, the lack of professional humility. The balance that must exist between the can-do and saying No, presents a real leadership dilemma, for which there is no simple answer. It is the duty of whomever is in a position of leadership, to be able to differentiate the risks associated with a task and weigh them with the expected benefits or goals.
Many readers may have lamented the tragic collision of the US Navy destroyer Fitzgerald with a merchant vessel while transiting near Tokyo Bay. Not long after, that same year, the USS John S. McCain was involved in similar accident, while sailing to Singapore. Both mishaps occurred in such a short interval that it created international commotion and lead the Chief of Naval Operations, then Admiral John M. Richardson, to order a rigorous investigation to determine the causes and circumstances of both accidents which resulted in 17 sailors losing their lives.
After reading the investigation reports (available on the web) there is no doubt that both mishaps were avoidable. Like in most maritime accidents, these collisions were the result of a chain of events, where human error was the primary factor in not detecting and solving a high-risk situation. However, in the author´s opinion, there is a fundamental aspect in those reports that has not been thoroughly discussed. In various presentations and meeting regarding these accidents, the discussions have centered on navigational errors, procedural problems, and the lack of sufficient training in both ships. But in neither case has there been debates regarding one of the causes of these accidents, the risks associated to the so-called “can-do” attitude.
In the Navy, we are educated and trained to become leaders, to act with initiative, make decisions, incite and achieve the things that need to be done, by which the Americans denominate as do´ers. This formation obeys the imperative need to assimilate the concept of “mission accomplished” of the task assigned, where all human and material effort points towards that objective.
In the Chilean Navy, the can-do culture is strongly ingrained from the first day we enter the Naval Academy and is valued as a virtue of our leadership. There are many examples in our history, like the army´s conquest of Arica´s mount, or Cochrane´s legacy in the capture of Corral and Valdivia, where the Admiral soon after erased the word “impossible” from the navy´s dictionary. Due to this imperative, many of us have, one time or another, been confronted in circumstances saying to our commander; “Sir, tell me what to do, and I´ll figure out how to do it.”
In no way can this culture or attitude be wrongly interpreted as something damaging for our service. On the contrary, it´s an attitude that must be cultivated and encouraged. Throughout our history it has been considered a great asset and it has allowed us to meet goals that initially seemed impossible, constituting proof of commitment, character, and spirit that excels and inspires us never to give up.
However, as US Navy reports highlights, there are dangers associated with the can-do attitude, i.e.; misunderstood personal pride, apprehension of our superior´s reaction, and, perhaps the most important, a lack of professional humility. In some circumstances they can turn into serious obstacles for effective leadership and the necessary feedback that our chain of command needs. This attitude might inhibit subordinates to say, “I can´t”, or the officer in charge in not listening or accepting those types of answers, generating situations which might have serious consequences.
These types of discussions are not new in military history, and throughout time they have been studied under different names and approaches. For instance, in his book “A Historical Survey of Military Incompetency”, (1987) Geoffrey Regan analyzes different cases in British military history, and when referring to the leaders´ strengths and weaknesses, he asserts; “The first type of military incompetency is the one that emanates from a Commander´s unrealistic trust, associated to recklessness and impetuous decisions…that overshadowed reason and ignored their subordinates´ opinions.”
In an organizational culture that proudly encourages do´ers, nobody wants to be the first to say, “I can´t”. But, that determined and proactive attitude, expected in every leader, has the risk of eventually clouding objectivity by preventing to clearly recognize his own and their subordinates´ limitations. For this reason, those who assume a leadership position, have the responsibility towards their subalterns to know when and why to say “no.”
On the other hand, if a commander knows and trusts that his fellow crew will do everything possible to accomplish the assigned task, that leader must cultivate humility and give himself time to hear a no for an answer, and consequently reevaluate that order.
According to the US Navy investigation and subsequent reports, in one of the cases the Commanding Officer never stated to his chain of command that his crew was unable to accomplish the mission. In the other mishap, the CO´s standing orders were not followed by the bridge watch. Analyzing our past and recent history, no doubt we will find circumstances were the can-do attitude allowed to overcome obstacles that seemed impossible, but there are also instances were recklessness or just not being able to say “no” or to hear a “no”, evolved into serious accidents. The tragic army march in Antuco in 2005, or the grounding of the missile boat “Casma” in 2004, are two examples.
Every day we face the challenge of evaluating different situations and subsequently making decisions which may have bigger or lesser impact, but nonetheless not exempt of consequences. When this process is altered by external pressures or other factors, for instance, deadlines, a potentially risky scenario starts to build up, like incorporating last-minute modifications to planning. Other examples can be personnel replacement, not taking in account the impact in the unit´s training and performance, or when motivation is overestimated as an antidote for fatigue. In all these circumstances, the can-do attitude can lead us to deny an “I can´t” situation.
Increasingly more tools are incorporated to better evaluate different scenarios. For instance, one of these tools is the use of Operational Risk Management (ORM) whose purpose is mitigating the risks associated to an assigned task. But the user must keep in mind that this process still has a percentage of subjectivity, so this tool is as effective as the wisdom and intuition of whom applies it, and therefore is hardly foolproof. Naval War College professor Milan Vego explained to his students that the media exposure, from which military leaders are confronted nowadays, together with an increasing aversion to risk and the possibility of failure, has led on occasion to exaggerate the use of ORM, thus producing the opposite effect, eventually preventing them to accomplish their mission.
The balance that must persist between the can-do and to say “no”, presents a difficult leadership dilemma, with no simple answer. In essence, saying “I can” does not always mean “I must”. It´s an obligation for those in a leadership position, to fully distinguish the risks associated with an assigned task and confront it with the benefits or expected goals, using their best professional and human judgment to make a decision.
I honestly believe that the accomplishment of an assigned task, under the concept of doing everything human and physically possible to achieve it, must still be an attitude of life and the basis of our naval leadership. Nevertheless, it is also important to leave some space for an objective professional judgment. The key is to humbly know when to say “I can´t” to a superior, and even more important, when to listen to a subordinate and accept a “no” for an answer.
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Año CXXXVII, Volumen 140, Número 993
Marzo - Abril 2023
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